China’s domestic security chief believes a fatal vehicle crash in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in which five died was planned by a Uighur separatist group, designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and United Nations.
Meng Jianzhu, a member of the 25-member Politburo responsible for domestic security, said the East Turkestan Islamic Movement was behind the attack. This is the first time Beijing has accused the group of carrying out the attack.
On Monday, an SUV ploughed through bystanders on the edge of the capital’s iconic Tiananmen Square and burst into flames, killing the three people in the car and two bystanders, in what the government called a terrorist attack.
Beijing police have arrested five people it says were radical Islamists who were planning a holy war. Security has been strengthened in both Beijing and in Xinjiang, the restive far western region the Muslim Uighurs call home.
“This violent terrorist incident that’s happened in Beijing was organized and premeditated,” said Meng told Hong Kong’s Phoenix TV, in comments carried by the official Xinhua news agency on Friday.
“The group that stood behind the scenes inciting it was the East Turkestan Islamic Movement,” Meng said.
Many Uighurs call Xinjiang East Turkestan, and the government often blames the frequent outbreaks of violence there on extremists agitating for an independent state.
Some experts have expressed skepticism about China’s characterization of the Tiananmen Square incident as a premeditated and coordinated attack.
“If it’s a deliberate act, it’s unsophisticated,” said Joanne Smith Finley, a lecturer in Chinese studies at Newcastle University who studies Xinjiang. “It doesn’t carry any of the hallmarks that we would expect to see if it was something that was plotted and carefully deliberated with overseas extremists.”
The United Nations and U.S. placed ETIM on lists of terrorist organizations after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
The group entered the public eye ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when it claimed to have caused a series of fatal explosions across the country.
Police said the driver of the SUV as a man called Usmen Hasan, whose name suggests he is a Uighur, and said his mother and wife were in the car with him, along with devices filled with gasoline and a flag with “extreme religious content” on it.
At least 42 people were injured.
Exiled Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer told Reuters this week that caution should be exercised over the government’s account, adding she did not believe any kind of organized extremist Islamic movement was operating in Xinjiang.
Xinjiang, a sprawling, desert-like region that borders Central Asian nations that were part of the former Soviet Union as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan, has been beset by violence, blamed by China on Uighur separatists and extremists.
In 2009, nearly 200 people were killed in the Xinjiang capital Urumqi in rioting between Uighurs and the majority Han Chinese.
The East Turkestan Islamic Movement has been accused by the United States and China of having ties to al Qaeda, but there is disagreement among security experts as to the nature of the enigmatic group and whether ties with al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations really exist.
Rights organizations have said there is little concrete evidence that the group has carried out most of the attacks it has been blamed for, and that Beijing uses the group as an excuse to push repressive policies on Uighurs.